Any interview with the Santa Fe Opera's John Crosby, founder and general director until his retirement in 2000, tended to be an Event. Press shy, Crosby didn't much like playing interviewee. The odd smile might break forth, but the atmosphere remained courteously reserved.
His successor, Richard Gaddes, general director until 2008, made a distinctly different impression. Purposeful and peripatetic, he might stroll through his domain, pointing out a stunning costume (for Turandot, say) or prop (that glass boat for L’Amour de Loin). After a crisp, often off-the-record conversation, my notebook would be full and operatic ears might be burning.
Present General Director Charles MacKay offers another interview yet: affable and serene. A local boy raised in Santa Fe, his introduction to live opera happened at the first SFO Youth Night.
MacKay later worked his way through the company's ranks, starting as pit boy for Crosby in 1968, then moving up eventually to become business manager.
Seated at the table where Crosby held his staff meetings, MacKay commented, "It almost takes my breath away to be back as general director. I never really expected it. But it's comfortable. Many people I've worked with are still here. And it's good to see old friends in the community."
His business experience comes in handy. Last year's budget, just over $16.5 million, eked out a $4,000 surplus. This year's budget runs about the same, with MacKay repeating his mantra:
"We're cautiously optimistic. No big surprises, we hope."
His management skills—including 23 years as head of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis—come into play, too, with a seasonal staff numbering nearly 600.
As an homage to Crosby, the SFO’s 54 th season opens with a new production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. This has been the consecration-of-the-house piece ever since Crosby’s baton initiated the first season in 1957. After SFO’s initial theater burned, Butterfly, again under Crosby’s direction, opened the second house in 1968. And Crosby led the Puccini opera for the present theater’s opening night in 1998.
“If I’m not mistaken, this will be the company’s first Butterfly without John Crosby,” MacKay says. “Our conductor is Antony Walker, head of the Pittsburgh Opera with a debut at the Met coming up next year. He’s a talented singer as well. Two years ago while conducting Aida, he sang—yes, from the pit—the last-act Radames for a suddenly indisposed tenor.”
This summer, the spare and smart 2006 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute returns; Joshua Hopkins is on board again as a streetwise Papageno. Charles Castronovo, a Ferrando here recently, sings Tamino, with SFO debutante, Ekaterina Siurina, as Pamina.
Lawrence Renes, in charge of Don Giovanni last year, conducts.
The prospect of SFO’s first-ever production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffman) excites MacKay.
"With important exceptions, we haven't done much French opera, especially serious works like Hoffmann.
We hope to remedy that beginning this year. Stephen Lord, OTSL's music director, makes his debut here with the Offenbach," MacKay says.
"Our strong cast includes Paul Groves, last year's Admète, in the title role; Gidon Saks—another debut— sings the four villains; and Erin Wall, our Daphne in 2007, takes on all four soprano roles just as Offenbach intended. Christopher Alden, who's been away from the SFO for too long, directs."
Another big event is the world premiere of Lewis Spratlan’s Life Is a Dream.
With a libretto by James Maraniss, it is based on Pedro Calderón’s 1635 play, La Vida Es Sueño.
"Everyone probably knows about this work's vicissitudes. Composed in 1978, neglected except for two performances of its second act in 2000, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Spratlan, the opera's finally getting its first staging," MacKay says.
"A strong dramatic work, it's largely pan-tonal, and given the 17 th century Spanish source, appropriate for Santa Fe's 400 th anniversary. Lew has been enormously helpful, available to fit the notes to our singers' voices, making minor changes as the need arises," MacKay says. "We're lucky to have as conductor Leonard Slatkin, a long-time colleague from our St. Louis days and a consummate musician."
The last work to enter the summer repertory acknowledges Gaddes’ championing of Benjamin Britten and his quintessentially English comic “chamber opera,” Albert Herring. Gaddes had talked for years about producing this one, and it’s finally about to arrive. Sir Andrew Davis leads an all-star lineup featuring Alek Shrader in the title role, plus SFO favorites Christine Brewer and Judith Christin among the large cast.
Last season's repertory had been pretty much laid out before MacKay assumed leadership in 2008. This summer, it's all his. How does it feel? The man doesn't hesitate: "Just fine. I'm where I want to be."